2011090720200414 (BBC7)
20200415 (BBC7)
Olivia O'Leary follows historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin as he tries to change the way people talk to each other. He wants to make the world a better place - starting with the London Borough of Lewisham.

Prof Zeldin believes there are substantial social benefits to be gained from encouraging people to strip away social conventions and talk about things which go beyond gossip, argument and chit chat. He wants people to talk about who they really are, and what they want from life. He calls it 'new conversation.'

Guests at his 'conversation dinners' spend several hours talking to just one other person. They are required to follow a menu of conversational gambits such as : When have you felt isolated and what do you do about it? What would make the world a better place and how could you make that happen?

Olivia follows Prof Zeldin as he introduces his 'new conversation' to a wide range of people including former MPs, Pilates teachers, furniture store staff and unemployed teenagers. She asks why such people would want to be told how to talk to each other by an elderly Oxford academic.

Prof Zeldin's ambitious plan is to turn the borough of Lewisham into a place where the entire quarter of a million inhabitants can get to know each other. He argues that his approach will break down isolation and alienation, and even create more satisfying jobs.

But Prof Zeldin's efforts to sweep all along with him on his adventure hit a barrier when conversation dinner guests accuse him of staging a glorified version of Blind Date. And he meets resistance elsewhere from community groups who refuse to talk to people from other parts of the borough.

But with the support of the local council, Prof Zeldin pushes on; staging a mass conversation dinner in a park, and even hatching a scheme to enable local GPs to get to know their patients better. It's an uphill struggle, but Prof Zeldin is not a man to give up easily.

Producer: Brian King
A Just Radio production first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2011.

Olivia O'Leary follows historian Theodore Zeldin in the quest to reform conversation.